THE GUESS WHO – Canned Wheat (1969)

Review by: Jaime Vargas Sánchez
Album assigned by: Eric Pember

I had never listened to the Guess Who before, except for “American Woman”, of course; so while I knew they came more or less from the era of “classic rock” I did not know their style. So I was pleasantly surprised when, after the bizarre “out of tune music box” thing that opens the album (and the purpose of which I still struggle to ascertain), my ears were treated to “No Time”, which seems to derive all of their elements from Buffalo Springfield. You know, the kinetic rhythm section, active bass lines, high harmonies, country guitars, even the acid fuzz guitar solos. And that is fine with me. (Researching a bit I learned that this song was re-recorded for the American Woman album and released as a single, so if you have heard it before, it’s probably not the version I’m discussing here).

“Minstrel Boy” deceptively continues with the soft country-rock vibe, but it’s soon clear that the Guess Who are not afraid of variety and inserting some more sophisticated sounds (something the aforementioned Springfield were also fond of, to think of it).

Case in point, the single tracks “Laughing” and “Undun” that follow. “Laughing” is a well-constructed melodic pop song that seems tailor-made to make a splash in AM radio, and “Undun” adds unexpected soft jazz elements in the electric guitar and flute solo, which underpin a veritable vocal tour de force. And this streak concludes with “6 A.M. or Nearer”, which combines bachelor-pad-cocktail-jazz guitar chords in the verses with a Woodstock-ready California style chorus that, again, reminds me of the Buffalos or CSNY.

After this, “Old Joe”, while still in a melodic mold, takes us to a more rootsy, country-soul territory, and the pace then quickens a bit with “Of a Dropping Pin”, an infectious roots-rock number with R&B and gospel elements. Then, the piece de resistance of the album – the 11 minutes of “Key”. This one takes us back to the Woodstock aesthetics, with the rhythm section giving their all throughout (the jam section is mainly percussion-based, and it even has the mandatory drum solo to finish the proceedings) and some very welcome folk elements popping up here and there.

And we conclude with the jazzy ditty “Fair Warning”, with a rather bizarre spoken part that reminds me of something I can’t recall now. Speaking of ditties, many songs are linked by small segue bits – classical piano bits, Travis picking guitars, sitar noodlings, treated piano chords – which I think make them sound like trying too hard to invoke the spirit of the White Album, but that’s a minor complaint.

By the way, I enjoyed immensely Randy Bachman’s guitar solos throughout, but to me the hero of the record is Burton Cummings – not only he sings perfectly throughout, with finesse, flexibility and power, tender in the softest moments, raucous in the more driving points, soulful and controlled, but his keyboard touches are always totally appropriate and memorable and the couple of jazzy flute solos he has in “Undun” and “6 A.M. or Nearer” are highlights as well.

Bottom line: If the only thing you’ve heard from the Guess Who is the (terrific) “American Woman” single (or worse, the cover by Lenny Kravitz!) and you have this mental image of some king of Canadian Grand Funk Railroad, don’t be fooled by that impression, and if you like late 60s rootsy classic rock, don’t hesitate to give a listen to “Canned Wheat”. You’re in for a treat. Thumbs up.
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Author: tomymostalas

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